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Wednesday, 3 October 1956

Mr ROBERTON (Riverina) (Minister for Social Services) . - I am sure the committee will concede me the opportunity, in the few minutes that remain, to address myself to one or two observations that have been made in the course of this debate.

Dr Evatt - 1 rise to order. The honorable member for Wills (Mr. Bryant) rose at the same time as the Minister for Social Services. Did you see him, Mr. Chairman?

The CHAIRMAN - Yes, I saw him.

Dr Evatt - And you passed him by?

The CHAIRMAN - I gave the Minister priority.

Mr ROBERTON - There are six minutes remaining in the time allotted for the discussion of the Estimates for this group of departments. I am sure that the Honorable member for Wills, whatever he had to say, would not be able to confine His remarks within the limit of six minutes, and1 1 am sure that I can say what I have to say in rather less time than that. I wish to thank the honorable members who have addressed themselves to the proposed vote for the Department of Social Services, for the very generous and gracious tributes that they paid to the officers of that department.

Mr Ward - Would I be in order, Mr. Chairman, in moving now that the honorable member for Wills be heard?

The CHAIRMAN - No. It would have been necessary to move such a motion at the time I gave the call to the Minister.

Mr Ward - Well, there is no time like the present.

The CHAIRMAN - The Minister is speaking now; the honorable member may not interrupt his speech.

Mr ROBERTON - When I was so rudely interrupted by the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward), I had reached the point of thanking the honorable members who made generous and gracious references to the officers, of the department that I administer. It is a very large department; and its officers are engaged in the most intimate of human affairs,, dealing with men, women and children. Its activities, of course, involve almost the entire community, so wide are the ramifications of social services to-day. I must take this opportunity to express my own appreciation of the work of the officers of the department.

I wish now to refer to the excellent speech of the honorable member for Henty (Mr. Fox). He said that he and other honorable members were in favour of the abolition of the means test. I' suppose it would be correct to say that every honorable member in this chamber who has applied himself to a study of the administration of social services, and who is free from political prejudices, would agree that the means test should be abolished, so that' justice may be meted out to those who have during their working lives, made some provision, no matter how meagre, for their old age. or infirmity. We must appreciate that any attempt to abolish the means test would' involve us in an immediate expenditure of no less than £115,000,000 a year. If every qualified person of pensionable age were to be granted the pension, the cost of. social: services, for age pensions alone, would immediately rise by £115,000,000. The total expenditure that the people of. this country would have to face for health and social services would be £342,000,000, and not £227,000,000 as it is to-day. Those who have not made a careful study of the position, of course, suggest that the problem can be solved by imposing a contributory charge, but, in the final analysis, a contributory charge is just another kind of tax, and it is a kind of tax that is not entirely acceptable to those who are not aware of its impact on the economy, not of the country but of the individuals within the country. Whereas taxation is confined to those who receive certain incomes, or who have property of a certain value, a contributory charge descends on the entire community, regardless of the circumstances of individuals or of their financial ability to meet the charge. It should be recognized that the abolition of the means test, if it resulted in the introduction of a contributory charge, would inflict very serious hardships on those least able to bear hardships at this time.

I have one final comment to make regarding the consequences of the abolition. of the means test. Wherever it has been' attempted in any part of the world it has immediately required an additional compensatory social services scheme to provide for people in the desperate circumstances so eloquently referred to to-day by the honorable member for Scullin (Mr. Peters). I have told the committee what abolition of the means test would cost and what the consequences would be. The Government, however, is conscious of the very serious injustice that is inflicted on a deserving section of the community, the members of which, as I have said, have applied themselves to the task of providing for their old age.

Proposed votes agreed to.

Progress reported.

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